Dilemma: Finding a Nonprofit you can Trust


Issues related to money and nonprofit organizations are popping up all over the place – whether it's Money flickr  401Kpoliticizing their grant-making or taking money from unsavory corporations.  In that latter category and receiving almost no attention in the mainstream media (with one exception) is the National Wildlife Federation's partnership with Scotts Miracle-Gro (one link of many here on the Rant) and in the same week, news of the Sierra Club no longer taking money from the natural gas industry, from which it's gotten 25 million bucks over the years! That would be the same industry that promotes the much-hated-by-environmentalists practice of fracking.  The Sierra Club had endorsed fracking over the years, until (finally) a new CEO pulled the plug on that source of millions and went clean.

So the hero of this piece is the Sierra Club's CEO Michael Brune, who when he got that job in 2010 made the decision to turn down an additional $30 million from the industry and offered this explanation:

We need to be unrestrained in our advocacy …The first rule of advocacy is that you shouldn’t take money from industries and companies you’re trying to change.  Source.

As Paul Tukey pointed out in more of his excellent reporting on this issue, that's the opposite of the tack taken by the NWF's CEO in claiming that in taking money from Scotts, they could help it become a better company.  Right.

But as Paul also pointed out, there are consequences to turning down tainted money, which in the Sierra Club's case amounted to a quarter of its yearly operating income.  The Club had to reduce programs and lay people off.  

Funding Options for Nonprofits

So where should nonprofits get their funding, anyway?  Not by stepping up their onslaught of direct mail, thanks very much.  Many critics of the NWF complain of their excessive fund-raising and lord only knows what portion of their operating budget goes to fund-raising. (More on that below.)

How about partnering with companies whose products and practices don't directly contradict the mission of the nonprofit?  The Wilderness Society seems to have this figured out – by the look of their list of corporate partners and the policies they have in place for accepting corporate money.  (In my Googling the Wilderness Society I found this report condemning its "socialist origins".  See, just not capitalist enough!)

That small list of benign companies and strict standards contrasts not just with the NWF, mind you, but even more starkly with the list of "companies we work with" proudly displayed by the Nature Conservancy.  Companies like Monsanto, Dow Chemical and BP, among others.  Oh, yeah!  (Never mind the occasional bad publicity.)

How to Judge a Nonprofit

Think I know?  I just know what doesn't work – those Good Housekeeping-type ratings of nonprofits according to what percentage they spend on program versus administrative and fund-raising.  NWF's fund-raising is reported to be just 14 percent – really? 

My cynicism about these reported and trusted numbers comes from experience, a bad one.  I once worked (briefly) for a nonprofit whose executives instructed us underlings to lie about our activities on the forms nonprofits submit, so that administrative and fund-raising work magically turned into programmatic work. On top of which, a lawyer hired to help them improve their program percentage set up an operation whereby clothing was donated to the nonprofit, which turned around and donated it again, the effect of which was to boost their program-related numbers without ever handling the clothes. And I see from their current Better Business report that they supposedy spend an astonishing 93% of their funds helping the homeless, and only 7% on admin and fund-raising.  Reversing those numbers would come closer to the truth.

Nice to get that off my chest.  Moving on…

Money-Giving Options for Nature-Lovers

Over on the Ecosystem Gardening blog, Carole Brown continues her reporting on the backlash against the NWF by compiling other ways readers can get their gardens wildlife-habitat-certified without having to pay the NWF for the privilege (and pay more for a sign).  She found three national or North American organizations that fit the bill as substitutes for the NWF.

Even better, she suggests going local – by giving to nature centers and any number of conservation groups "right in your own backyard." 

These small environmental organizations are often struggling to get by on a very small budget of donations. They are able to do amazing things with very little money.

I couldn't agree more with her suggestion or the assertion that our dollars go farther with these small, local groups than the large national ones.  (For example, they probably don't pay their CEOs super-sized salaries.)  There are at least a dozen good conservation groups in my area, and if I want to recommend backyard certification I can just send people to the University of Maryland's "Bay-Wise Yardstick" program.  It's not only free but in my opinion, its more science-based literature is superior to the NWF's.

Carole goes on to recommend giving of your time, too.  And that's always going to be local.

Think Scotts will Change?

While Carole's post ends with a rallying cry to get Scotts to "clean up its act", I'm way too cynical (or just too old) to think that boycotting Scotts would change the company in any way.  There are plenty of reasons to avoid their products, and I do, but thinking it'll cause Scotts to have a "come to Jesus" experience is not one of them.

Money photo credit. Scotts graphic by Carole Brown.


  1. I’ve found it necessary to be careful with small, local groups as well. They can be just as questionable in their practices and handling of funds. I just got kicked out of a gardening group for asking too many questions about the budget. Turns out the founders used text copied from my emails to them in grant applications, without my permission. And they’re using the funds to boost their urban CSA, not to actually install food gardens for low-income residents as promised.

    If a group doesn’t have public meetings, if members don’t have an actual vote on critical decisions, if the books aren’t visible and they never report on how the funds they raise are actually being spent…walk away. If they treat former members badly, if they bad-mouth and shame, if they try to villainize or blacklist someone who publicly disagrees…they’ll eventually do it to you, too.

  2. Give Well rates charities for their “effectiveness” — and it recommends only one percent of the charities it analyzes. Its blog includes info on (their own) errors and they try to be as transparent as they wish the charities they analyze would be. They have a list of questions to ask to rate charities on your own (they haven’t looked into garden-related nonprofits) at http://givewell.org/charity-evaluation-questions

  3. Thank you for such a well-researched, -thought-out, and -written piece – you all always give lots of bang for the buck!

  4. I agree with most of the points in this post except for the advice to avoid national organizations altogether.

    Local groups are certainly very important. However, we cannot afford to ignore the decisions made at a national level that have a profound effect on our environment. That’s why Scott’s, Monsanto, et al have so many lobbyists in Washington!

    National organizations are needed to deal with environmental issues at a national level. Yes, such organizations can sell out or become out of touch. That’s why we should protest things like the NWF-Scott’s deal and support the Sierra Club when they do the right thing. But I don’t believe it is an option to turn our back on what goes on beyond the local level.

  5. Woo woo. I’m with you on this. Probably the “P” word (politics) is not popular in many gardening circles. Unfortunately, if one thinks beyond their own flower bed and creating a beautiful home (as promoted in the traditional “ladies'” magazines, it turns out politics is everywhere. And if we care about the natural state of the planet, we have to be involved. Sigh.

  6. In defense of the Nature Conservancy, you should go to that link of corporations they work with and click on the links and see HOW they are working with those companies… many times the work that’s being done is good and necessary and is often motivated by a desire for a change in culture in the company, a need for mitigating damage that company is doing elsewhere or plain old guilt. I’m not saying that these companies are doing the right thing for the right reasons, just that TNC would be foolish to turn down millions of dollars that can be used to buy, protect and manage sensitive natural areas. Remember that TNC is a conservation group – not an advocacy organization.
    Often, TNC functions as an intermediary between corporations and governmental regulators, bringing scientific resources and policy recommendations to complicated scenarios. The Nature Conservancy does good work in a ethically complicated arena – we need them.

  7. Susan, thank you for bringing this issue into focus. Like you said, a complicated issue, as many of us want to support such advocacy groups and not-for-profits but feel uneasy/uniformed about how that money is spent. I sometimes think that unexamined support, without full-disclosure of how these orgs work is as much about checking something good off my list and feeling better about my conscience than necessarily helping. I’ve been very impressed with The Nature Consevancy’s efforts to preserve sensitive ecologies, even when they have to work with corporations to do so. Certainly, compromise occurs, and it’s not always the dreamy rescue that we’d hope for from a pure advocacy standpoint. It’s important that we’re honest about how and to what extent that compromise is happening, but I feel like being willing to accept the messiness of these issues and the realities of how money flows in efforts order to preserve such habitats is the better act. Thank you for highlighting the link between Scotts and TWF.

  8. Skr, good question! I can answer for myself but I refer you to wildlife and native plant blogs for their answers.
    I did it because my town wanted to be certified as a wildlife habitat, so it was a communal effort. For individuals, doing it and posting the certification sign encourages other people to consider wildlife in their gardening practices. As a town, we used it as a public education campaign. Getting certified as a town (the first in MD!) was a point of pride that motivated more people to do it. So I guess for both individuals and towns, it’s a way of educating and motivating others to be more environmentally conscious.

  9. Forbes.com had a good investigative report on how charities ranked, or the best 50 or somesuch. Eye-opening.

    Years ago, I gave TNC $15. They distributed my info among way too many environmental organizations, who ALL sent me several begging letters–a waste of rather more than $15. Since then, I donate on the street, in cash, when I can, to any national organization, for the most part, since it’s often a one-time donation.

  10. I’m late to the conversation, but I want to chime in with some thoughts. Disclosure: I’m a 20+ year non-profit employee.

    First thought: don’t put too much stock in the percentage that goes to administration. Susan’s point that this number can be off, accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose, is part of it. My addition is that if the number is too low, that tells me the charity is not spending money on the checks and balances that make sure your donation gets to where it needs to be and not into somoene’s pocket. The agency I work for has (I’m guessing) 20 different funding sources, and we are accountable to each of them for every cent we spend. That accountability takes time and costs money, but it means our donors can be sure their contributions are doing the most possible good.

    Second thought: if you’re interested in supporting a charity, call them up and ask to tour their facility. Any reputable charity will gladly drop everything to get a potential donor in their doors. Find out what they do, find out where your money goes (i.e. local vs. national) and ask questions. If you like what you see and hear, support them knowing more about the cause you’re helping, and knowing your money is in good hands.

    Consider volunteering. I know, that conjures up images of stuffing mountains of envelopes. BORING! Well it doesn’t have to be. Be creative and think of ways you can help. Lawyers can donate a few hours of pro-bono work to the agency each month. Hair stylists can give clients haircuts one afternoon each month. Students can help hang posters for special events or create a Facebook page for the agency. Or maybe you LIKE stuffing envelopes (freak!). This is also a good way for people just starting out professionally to get experience and get to know a Board of Trustees (which are often packed with good people to know!).

    I hope this helps.

Comments are closed.